Museum risks wrath of Inuit with display from tragic Arctic voyage

Exhibition may solve riddle of Franklins lost expedition

After 165 years under icy seas, the lost secrets of Sir John Franklins doomed British Arctic expedition in search of the North-West Passage are to form the centrepiece of a major London exhibition, Death in the Ice. But who really owns these salvaged artefacts?

This weekend it has emerged that the historic items painstakingly retrieved from the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of Franklins two lost expeditionary vessels, were taken without permission from waters now owned by the Inuit people in Canada.

In 2014 the sunken wreck of the Erebus was found lying in a part of the Arctic Ocean that belongs to Canadas vast northernmost territory, Nunavut. A document made public in Canada in the past fortnight reveals that the premier of Nunavut has since protested directly to Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, about the actions of scientists working with the curators of the exhibition, which opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south London, on 14 July.

In his formal letter of complaint, released at the request of a Canadian journalist, the premier, Peter Taptuna, argues that the contents of the Erebus are rightfully owned by his region and by the Inuit Heritage Trust. The letter alleges that Parks Canada, a government agency, ignored the fact the ship was submerged in Nunavuts internal waters when it removed the artefacts. This was unfortunate and inconsistent with past practice, it adds.

A spokeswoman for the National Maritime Museum said the new show would give visitors a clear sense of the role played by the Inuit in the original search for Franklin. It features Inuit oral histories relating to European exploration of the North-West Passage and many Inuit artefacts, including objects made using materials specifically from the Franklin expedition and other European sources. The stories of these items provide clues to the fate of Franklins men.

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